On August 31 a little after midnight local time in Kabul the last US C-17 plane flew out of Afghanistan, bringing down the curtain on an era of US engagement in that country. In many ways, history came a full circle as the US had to hand over Afghanistan to the Taliban, the militant group that it sought to uproot from that country as well as the larger region. While in the immediate setting, the troop withdrawal may have come as a huge relief to Washington, dodging an extremely hostile milieu in Afghanistan and perhaps avoiding more casualties, the long-term implications are fraught with political, economic and security uncertainties not just for Afghanistan but for the US, the larger South Asian region and perhaps the larger connected world.
President Biden’s defence of his step to withdraw despite the second highest casualties[i] in its over two decades engagement in Afghanistan shows Washington’s unequivocal determination to leave Afghanistan despite the potential regional and global fallouts of the decision. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has been variously described as ‘defeat’, ‘victory’,‘extraordinary success’, ‘best decision’ and ‘historic moment’,[ii] depending on which party described it.Perhaps, the truth lies somewhere in between these extremities. However, Biden’s binary of another military escalation as the only alternative to troop withdrawal from Afghanistan may not be entirely true, in retrospect. Perhaps, there was a third way that could have facilitated a smooth transfer of power to the Taliban, while the US was still in the country.[iii] The date of withdrawal created a race against time not just for the US, but among the Taliban who were propped up with the historic possibility of ruling Afghanistan on their own terms.
Despite a long list of uncertainties, the US withdrawal and the Taliban takeover in Kabul foresee a few certainties. The US withdrawal leaves behind a strategic vacuum that other powers, especially China and Russia, have scrambled to fill. How successful would that endeavour be, remains to be seen. Nonetheless, Afghanistan under the Taliban has opened up maneuvering space for not just Beijing and Moscow but other countries like Pakistan and Turkey, which seek to gain early advantage from the crisis in the region.As the Taliban has moved closer to government formation in Kabul, its invitation to China, Russia, Pakistan, Qatar, Turkey and Iran[iv] depicts the Taliban’s tilt to consolidate a power axis which is fundamentally against US military presence in the region.Since the fall of Kabul on 15 August, the Taliban have stated as well as signaled in no uncertain terms that their partnership with both Russia and China would be high on priority. The photo of theChinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, political chief of Afghanistan’s Taliban, in north China’s Tianjin, on 28 July speaks of the careful ground work that China engaged in to maintain leverage in Afghanistan, even in the face of crisis. Russia too, has not lagged behind in filling the strategic vacuum in Afghanistan and has held preparatory meetings[v] with the Taliban. The Taliban have reaffirmed these connections with China and Russia in their statements, saying that while they have “very good relations”[vi] with Russia, China is their “most important partner”.[vii]One of Biden’s main planks for withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan was stated to bethe US’ strategic competition with China and Russia.[viii]In retrospect, as both China and Russia are likely to have close relations with the Taliban, the rationale of ‘strategic competition’ may have been diluted for the US, at least in the region.
The ensuing competition between great and middle powers in Afghanistan and the broader regionis likely to have its own set of complications for South Asia. The US’ troop withdrawal from Afghanistan may have significantly dented the US’ currency as an enforceable power globally, however, it does not mean a loss of strategic leverage in Asia. The strategic compulsions of the US in Asia, including in the Indo-Pacific, is likely to ensure America’s continued competitive engagement with the region.The US remains formidably present in Asia, both in terms of strategic geography and military wherewithal.However, its penchant to use such force in the future may stand tested, even as Washington’s reliance on offshore balancing and embrace of multilateralism are likely to grow. This is likely to increase the burden of expectations on the US’ partners and friends in the region. The rapidly diminishing capability and resources gap and rising competition of China with the US have already forced the US Senate to pass the $250 billion China competition Bill, called the US Innovation and Competition Act.[ix]Besides, China has looked at Afghanistan as an opportunity for long, especially for its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).[x] As the US is likely to remain outside the set of countries seeking to gain early influence in Afghanistan, the regional competitive mix emerging out of the new political cohort comprising China, Russia, Turkey, Pakistan and Qatarwill provide a new gauge for future US role in the region.Seeking to maintain an edge, America’s focus on providing alternatives to investment, infrastructure and connectivity may increase, especially in the Indo-Pacific.
While the Taliban’s immediate tilt to powers opposing the US presence in the region may seem justified, coming on the back of a two-decade long US military presence which they continually and inherently opposed, in the long term this shift of power axis could have tremendous implications for South Asia in particular and the broader Asian region largely. For regional countries, particularly India, the evolving situation in Afghanistan is going to throw many challenges. Most important among which, may be to successfully navigate its close ties with the US, the demands emanating from multilateral partnerships such as the Quad in ensuring regional peace and security, and guarantee that it remains strategically engaged with Afghanistan.
An additional challenge that lurks over Afghanistan and may impact the whole region could be the shadow of yet another great power rivalry, using proxies.[xi] Particularly, the region could see the emergence of two power axes competing for strategic rivalry, with the US and its friends/allies on one side and China-Russia along with other set of countries on the other, significantly changing the strategic landscape in South Asia. Different interests of regional countries in South Asia too, particularly the binaries of India-Pakistan and India-China, could add to the emerging competitive mix in the region, embroiling engagement, investments and relationships. One example in this regard is the possibility that the Chinese BRI could be extended to Afghanistan in the near future,[xii] geographically crisscrossing with other projects in the region like the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC). Another, is the pursuit of connectivity projects like the trilateral project between Iran, India and Afghanistan which seeks to build the critical Chabahar-Zahedan-Kabul corridor.[xiii] These relatively distant problems are coupled with the possibility of some direct threats for most South Asian countries in the form of growth in instability and the possibility of rise in terrorism.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has left a legacy of insecurities which could prove to be regionally destabilising for the whole of South Asia.
*Dr. Vivek Mishra, Research Fellow, Indian Council World Affairs.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i]“13 troops killed, Kabul airport attack worst US loss in Afghanistan since 2011”. IndiaToday. August 272021. URL: https://www.indiatoday.in/world/story/13-troops-killed-kabul-airport-attack-worst-us-loss-1845955-2021-08-27 (Accessed September 06, 2021)
[ii]“Biden defends Afghan withdrawal as ‘best decision’ for US”. Al Jazeera. 31 August2021. URL: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/8/31/taliban-declares-afghanistans-independence-after-us-withdrawal (Accessed September 06, 2021)
[iii]“Biden's Afghanistan withdrawal could've gone so differently”. MSNBC. 1 September2021. URL: https://www.msnbc.com/opinion/biden-s-afghanistan-withdrawal-could-ve-gone-so-differently-n1278163 (Accessed September 06, 2021)
[iv]“Taliban finalise Afghanistan govt formation, invite China, Russia, Pakistan to ceremony”. IndiaToday. September 062021. URL:
https://www.indiatoday.in/world/story/taliban-final-touches-to-afghanistan-govt-formation-1849685-2021-09-06 (Accessed September 06, 2021)
[v]Isachenkov, V (2021). “Taliban visit Moscow to say their wins don’t threaten Russia”. AP News. July 082021. URL:
https://apnews.com/article/taliban-moscow-europe-russia-51327432f1455020352826281c6c4e73 (Accessed September 06, 2021)
[vi]Koffman, M, et.al (2021). “After Withdrawal: How China, Turkey and Russia will Respond to the Taliban”. War on the Rocks. August 312021. URL: https://warontherocks.com/2021/08/after-withdrawal-how-china-turkey-and-russia-will-respond-to-the-taliban/ (Accessed September 06, 2021).
[vii]“China is our Most Important Partner: Taliban”. LiveMint. 3 September 2021. URL: https://www.livemint.com/news/india/china-is-our-most-important-partner-say-taliban-11630662700353.html (Accessed September 06, 2021).
[viii]“Biden Says Afghan Quagmire Would Have Helped Russia, China”. NDTV. August 172021. URL: https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/us-president-joe-biden-says-afghan-quagmire-would-have-helped-russia-china-2512003 (Accessed September 06, 2021).
[ix]Edmonsdon, C (2021). “Senate Overwhelmingly Passes Bill to bolster Competitiveness with China. New York Times. June 08 20212021. URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/08/us/politics/china-bill-passes.html (Accessed September 05, 2021)
[x]Yuanchao, Li (2015). “Promote China-Afghanistan Cooperation and Bring New Life to the Silk Road”. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China. URL: https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjdt_665385/zyjh_665391/t1312149.shtml (Accessed September 06, 2021)
[xii]Verma, K.J. (2021).“China eyes BRI extension to Afghanistan as it awaits Taliban to form government. LiveMint. 3 September 2021. URL:https://www.livemint.com/news/world/china-eyes-bri-extension-to-afghanistan-as-it-awaits-taliban-to-form-govt-11630678935241.html (Accessed September 06, 2021).
[xiii]Roche, E (2016). “India, Iran and Afghanistan ink trade corridor pact”. Live Mint. Date of Publication? URL: https://www.livemint.com/Politics/pI08kJsLuZLNFj0H8rW04N/India-commits-huge-investment-in-Chabahar.html (Accessed September 06, 2021)